Time to dip toe into opening up border

Editorial | Mary Ma 13 May 2020

It is, without doubt, time to lift some pandemic-related restrictions. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's proposal to expand the easing of limits on social gathering and the reopening of bars are a further step towards opening the border with Guangdong and Macau - as long as prudent principles are followed.

The border has officially remained open all along, but this is in name only. Owing to the 14-day quarantine requirement for anyone arriving from the mainland, Macau and Taiwan, there have been few crossings during these abnormal days.

That has become a real problem for those working in one place and living in another.

Lam's plan to exempt some, starting with businessmen and professionals, is a practical idea.

Hopefully, the three jurisdictions in Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland will finalize an arrangement in the near future so that the borders are open pragmatically. Nevertheless, this must happen at a measured pace to take into account each other's prevailing pandemic situation.

Chinese University of Hong Kong respiratory illness expert David Hui Shu-cheong said exemption from quarantine should apply to provinces where coronavirus outbreaks are well under control rather than to the nation on an across-the-board basis.

His cautious approach would make perfect sense if the three governments could not agree on a common system of proof showing border-crossing commuters were free of the virus and healthy. But it is difficult to imagine such a disagreement. That being said, there has to be a number of principles that must be adhered to as the authorities here and across the borders lower quarantine requirements step by step.

A cardinal principle is that the disease situation in each other's areas must continue to improve. If local outbreaks are reported in the course of opening up, the situation must be reviewed with a view to determining whether it is still safe to continue to do so.

We may borrow a famous saying from the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping: cross the river by feeling the stones.

It will be crucial to avoid categorizing the exercise as a lives-vs-economy matter. That would be a dangerous assumption since scientists are increasingly of the opinion that humans will continue to live with the threat of the virus for as long as it takes before a vaccine is developed or a cure found.

Unfortunately, there is no certainty these will materialize despite the global search for both.

The coronavirus will set a new normal that will affect all of us. The United States and Europe are waking up to this stark reality and - though dealing with outbreaks more serious than ours - are moving gradually to find a new balance to let social and economic activities resume.

The SAR government must be flexible as it moves on with a roadmap for the near, medium and long term, ready to adjust immediately to whatever measures are necessary.

With no reports of local outbreaks for more than three weeks, Hong Kong is in a better position than anywhere else to be bolder while, at the same time, remaining cautious.

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